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Skip convention, but get ready for school
By Ross Ramsey/The Texas Tribune
The real question for thousands of Texas Republican delegates on the invitation list for what was going to be an in-person state convention next week is just like the one facing parents deciding whether they’re comfortable sending their kids to school in a few weeks:
“Are we ready to do this?”
It only looks like a political question. It’s really about fear of the pandemic; about the rapidly rising numbers of coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths; and about whether the official accounting of the pandemic is giving them an accurate look at the risks.
Try to find out, for instance, what’s going on in other institutions that care for kids. As The Texas Tribune’s Aliyya Swaby reported last week, “parents face terrifying uncertainty as they try to decide whether to entrust their children to child care centers.”
Or take a hard look at the deaths attributed to the pandemic in Houston — and the number that aren’t being counted, as ProPublica and NBC News have done. Their reporters found that “a rapidly growing number of Houston-area residents are dying at home.” What’s more, they wrote, “An increasing number of these at-home deaths have been confirmed to be the result of COVID-19, Harris County medical examiner data shows.”
Those reports came out after the State Republican Executive Committee made national news by voting 40-20 to proceed with plans for an in-person convention in Houston next week, but the dramatic rise in COVID cases in Houston and in Texas was abundantly evident.
Houston public health officials deemed it too dangerous. City Hall got busy. Lawyers went to work. In short order, the convention was canceled by the Houston First Corp., which runs the George R. Brown Convention Center. And the inevitable litigation was underway in less than 24 hours.
One argument that conservatives have made is that this has more to do with politics than with the pandemic, that the same city that allowed huge public demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice a couple of weeks ago is now shutting down a Republican political convention.
But the public reaction to the GOP decision was similar to public sentiment about opening public schools. A University of Texas/Texas Politics Project poll found 65 percent of Texas registered voters think it’s unsafe to send the kids back to class right now.
The same survey found increasing pessimism about the safety of resuming normal activities. In a University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll in April, 26 percent thought it would be “in the next year” or “a year or more” before that would happen; in the June poll, that had risen to 55 percent.
The state rolled out some of its ideas about opening schools a few days ago, leaving lots of room for nervous parents to choose their own paths. School districts will be required to hold in-person classes for anyone who wants them, but parents are not required to send their kids and can opt instead for online schooling.
The evidence is mixed, partly because — as in the cases of child care facilities and nursing homes — government officials aren’t sharing everything they know, sometimes arguing that to do so would violate someone’s privacy.
That might be right, but without reasonably good information, uncertainty remains the order of the day for parents, businesses or anyone else trying to calculate the risks.
The GOP convention questions are masked by the politics, about the tensions among a Democratic Houston mayor, a Republican governor and a Texas Republican Party that bills its convention as one of the largest — if not the largest — political gatherings on the planet.
Top elected officials had already decided they weren’t going to be speaking at the convention center, appearing instead on screens watched by the in-person attendees.
And the cancellation, in a strange way, works to everyone’s credit: Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, canceled a Republican convention, which his supporters like; Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, doesn’t have to weigh in on whether the in-person convention is a good idea right now; and the Texas GOP escapes the risks of what might happen if you put thousands of people in the same room in a city marked as a COVID-19 hot spot.
Politics doesn’t provide much refuge for the parents of the state’s 5.4 million public school students. They have to decide whether they — and their children — are ready for this.